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The graphene revolution: It’s coming, and soon

Graphene is like fusion in that it promises enormous benefits in around a decade or so. However, unlike fusion, graphene has actually been making progress towards that goal.

Where many potential wonder-technologies struggle endlessly against conceptual barriers, the development of graphene has been almost entirely practical: How do you make the super-substance quickly and accurately enough for useful application in the real world? For several years now tech enthusiasts have followed that narrative closely, but given the fact that there’s still no graphene products on the market, many are becoming jaded. Is graphene the next fusion? If the last few weeks are any indication, graphene will be a revolution in ten years or less.

The problems with making an “atomically thin” substance like graphene is that the strands are both delicate and hard to control; sure, graphene is the strongest stuff known to man by weight, but a single strand is still insignificantly weak and so small that it’s difficult to make reliably. Even beyond the mechanical problems with producing such a substance, making billions of strands accurately turns out to be nearly impossible.

One team from MIT has recently been experimenting with graphene oxide. Using graphene in many cases requires treatment to make it useful, for instance with the addition of an oxygen atom to make graphene oxide and take the strands from conductors into a semiconductor. However, oxygenating the strands has been unreliable – and you can’t sell computer chips unless you can make them reliably. The new treatment method takes place at low temperatures, 50-80 degrees Celsius, rather than the scorching 900 degrees needed for traditional methods. As research brings graphene processors closer to reality, we’ll need to be able to manufacture the experimental units on a large scale.

These are the sorts of basic advances that allow the fancy ones to come to market. A similar advance recently saw researchers from the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) figure out how to grow graphene from copper films. This technique has been used in the past, but the problem was that the incredibly thin copper films couldn’t withstand the heat of the graphene production process. As a result, the copper approach was impractical – until these researchers included relatively enormous grains of copper – boulders whole centimetres across. The grains promote graphene growth and do just fine in the baking temperatures.

The European Commission recently awarded a staggering $670 million (£410 million) for graphene research, a push so large that some are actually questioning whether it may be more than can be helpful. With so many different teams looking into graphene, it’s easy for wires to get crossed, research to be duplicated, and discoveries missed by those who could build upon them. Still, the prize shows that experts truly have taken note of graphene’s potential, and are willing to invest in bringing that potential to market as quickly as possible. From cheaper solar cells to perfect anti-ice coatings, there are just too many possible applications for graphene for governments not to take action.

Graphene is coveted for its unique physical characteristics. As a single-atom sheet of carbon, an orderly carbon lattice not totally unlike that found in diamond, graphene can have incredible strength and flexibility, making it the toughest real material ever known. Graphene has also been proposed as a potential high-temperature super conductor, since its ability to conduct electricity is virtually unmatched.

As ultra-small transistors or a kilometres-long space elevator backbone, a biological implant or a supercharged electromagnet, graphene seems destined to affect all aspects of our lives in the future.